Head Pro Spotlight: Randy Smith

By: Joel Zuckerman

Though Texas is the second-largest state in the Union, no state looms larger in terms of its contributions to golf. The list of Lone Star luminaries would span the Rio Grande. Ten major (and major championship) names would include Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Lee Trevino, Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum, Jackie Burke Jr., Kathy Whitworth and "Babe" Zaharias, with 385 victories on the PGA and LPGA Tours combined.

Randy Smith & Justin Leonard

Add the name Justin Leonard to the list (more about him shortly) and the number pushes right up towards 400.

Texas also has a legacy of producing superb club professionals, most notably Harvey Penick of Austin Country Club, who passed away in 1995. One of the leading lights of the current generation is the highly regarded, long-enduring Randy Smith, who's approaching 40 years of tenure at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, where he has served as the club's head professional since 1980.

Smith hails from the west Texas town of Odessa, which is known for oil and football, not necessarily in that order. But it's a little-known hotbed for golf professionals. When he was honored as National PGA Professional of the Year in 1996, Smith was actually the third Odessa native to win the most prestigious award available to a club pro. Jerry Cozby and David Price preceded him, honored in the same capacity.

Despite his numerous achievements and the accolades bestowed upon him, Smith has a great sense of his place in the scheme of things. Call it the Texas Timeline, and he attributes much of his success to those who came before and those who mentored him.

"I have had several mentors that helped shape me into the professional I became, and I begin with Harvey Penick. His thumbprint is on so many club professionals in Texas and beyond, and he taught me lessons in kindness and attentiveness that are indelibly etched to this day."

Smith graduated from Texas Tech, where he spent his first two years on the golf team before going to work for professionals Gene Mitchell Sr. and his son, Gene Mitchell Jr., at Lubbock Country Club, while still an undergrad. His first post-college job was an assistant pro at Tulsa Country Club, which is when he called Penick and asked for help with his short game. He made the six-hour drive south, where the icon had served the membership of Austin Country Club for 50 years, and was still teaching.

"I hit balls for about three hours," reminisces Smith, still marveling at the memory. "Mr. Penick only offered about four pieces of advice the whole time, and did so in simple, easy-to-understand language. He would make a slight grip modification, for example, watch me hit a dozen balls, and then get in the range picker, and let me hit balls with this new adjustment for 30-odd minutes."

The scene repeated itself several more times. Penick would make another suggestion based on the ball flight Smith was hoping to achieve, watch him hit a dozen balls, then let him imprint the new alteration as he went back out to pick up the range. "He taught me 'less is more.' He used simple analogies with me, like trying to get the feeling of swinging a scythe. He was emphasizing reducing tension in the body, and the swing. I'm a talker by nature, but I learned that day to say far less during lessons, keep it simple, and keep repeating the key points so they will really sink in. He taught based on the student's wants, needs and limitations."

Randy Smith

As importantly as anything else, Smith learned true kindness and selflessness. At lesson's end, he was profusely thanking Penick for his time and expertise, and then casually mentioned they never discussed the short game, which was his primary concern. "He was mortified," recalls Smith, named on four separate occasions as the North Texas Section Teacher of the Year. "Even though his club was closed the next day, he insisted on meeting me at 8 a.m. regardless, and we spent 90 minutes on my short game the following morning. It was an amazing experience for me, and I've never forgotten it."

Randy Smith went to Permian High, immortalized in the best-selling expose on high school football, "Friday Night Lights." As much as he loved football, he quickly realized there wasn't much demand for a 115-pound freshman linebacker, and furthermore, he didn't have the "hell-bent-for-leather" mindset that allows undersized-but-game competitors to hold their own. "I was always concerned with breaking a finger, hurting my wrist and derailing my golf game," explains Smith, who was a junior golfer of note. "When I separated my shoulder in spring football practice it was my last day in pads."

Perhaps it was malaise over his fizzled football career, but moping around Odessa Country Club one afternoon and wanting to avoid an important junior event, Smith received a vital lesson from another essential mentor. "Jake Bechtold was the head pro at the club, and he was surprised I wasn't entered in the tournament," recalls the 2005 inductee into the PGA of America's Hall of Fame. "I told him I didn't have the $10 entry fee, which was my lame excuse, because I was down on myself and my game. He reached into the cash register, took out $10, and told me I was on the tee in 30 minutes.

"He believed in me, and taught me the value of tenacity, and never quitting. I also learned that the best pros have their tentacles in lots of different places. They are concerned with all their members, even sulky juniors, and not just the club's power brokers," says Smith, who surprised himself, but not the pro, by winning that very event.

"That small gesture by Jake Bechtold, urging me into the event, jump-started me again, and might have been the catalyst for my eventual career in golf. Who knows? If he hadn't done what he did, I could be a pipeline fitter in west Texas instead of the head professional at Royal Oaks in Dallas."

During his decades of tutelage to Royal Oaks' younger generations, there were a few who went on to worldwide acclaim. One was eventual British Open champion and Ryder Cup hero Justin Leonard. "We were euphoric when Justin mentioned Royal Oaks in his thank-you speech as he held the Claret Jug aloft," reminisces Smith, thinking about that magical summer day in 1997.

"To think back to when he was a skinny six-year-old with legs like toothpicks, who first came for golf lessons, to what he turned into, is remarkable. I was just as overjoyed when Harrison Frazar finally won his first Tour event in 2011 in his 355th attempt. Like Justin, Harrison has also been a member at Royal Oaks since he was a kid. It's hard to compare and contrast the feelings I had, maybe because I was 15 years older and that much more established in my job when Harrison won. But the feeling each time was amazingly gratifying."

Smith distinguishes between "Royal Oaks guys" like the aforementioned two, along with former U.S. Amateur winner Colt Knost, up-and-coming PGA Tour player Martin Flores, and other stars-in-the-making like Matt Weibring and Paul Haley. "I am their swing coach and also their head professional," explains Smith, "as they have all been around the club a long time. I also have taught or continue to teach touring professionals like John Rollins, Ryan Palmer, Gary Woodland and others, but in those cases I am their instructor only, not their head pro."

Randy Smith Working with Justin Leonard

"Randy has been instrumental in everything I've done in the game of golf." So begins Justin Leonard, who has a dozen Tour wins and more than $30 million in career earnings. "There was never any over-coaching or over-teaching, but he gave me just the right amount of information, which is so critical when you are young. I've now been a professional for about 20 years, and he still makes things exciting. He is a feel-oriented instructor, which is crucial because when you are on the golf course all you can rely on is your feel."

"He's incredible with junior golfers," continues Leonard, who has represented the United States a dozen different times as a member of various Ryder Cup, President's Cup, Walker Cup, Dunhill Cup and World Cup teams. "He takes as much pride in helping a member lower their 15 handicap down to single digits as he does when one of his professionals wins on the PGA Tour.

"In my opinion he's the reason Royal Oaks is the great club that it is. I joke with him that he must live there, because he has this beautiful golf shop, puts on first-class tournaments, yet seems to be on the range teaching eight hours a day. It's like Randy has two full-time jobs, and he excels at both."

Comparisons have been made between Smith's tutelage of Leonard and Frazar, and his great mentor Harvey Penick's similar role in the Hall-of-Fame careers of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. "I suppose there are some similarities," concludes Smith, "but I will be the first to tell you that I am no Harvey Penick. Nobody has ever been quite like him."

Truthfully spoken. But owing to his unique status as a respected, admired and long-serving club professional, coach and counselor to two generations of PGA Tour players - and more awards and accolades than any other member of his profession has ever amassed to date, there is nobody quite like Randy Smith, either.

Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Ga. His seventh and latest book, entitled "Pro's Pros - Extraordinary Club Professionals Making Golf Great!" was released in June 2013. This is the first-ever golf book to shine the spotlight on the beating heart of golf - the unsung, yet hard-working club professional. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in 110 publications, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine and Delta's Sky Magazine. He has played more than 800 courses in 40-plus states and a dozen countries. For more about Joel, or to order this unique new book, visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.